In 1962 Per Kirkeby gave up his academic career as a field geologist and enrolled at the newly founded Experimental Art School in Copenhagen. The avant-garde ‘Ex-School’, as it was known, was a focal point for young people keen to engage with far-flung artistic experimentation and investigate new technologies. Kirkeby was 24, and the institution’s Fluxus-inspired anarchy was the perfect springboard for a gifted polymath.
He would go on to become one of Denmark’s most celebrated modern artists, a multi-talented figure often described as ‘a painter’s painter’.
‘You really have to engage. His work requires effort. He doesn’t give up his ideas easily,’ says Luuk Hoogewerf, Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s in Amsterdam.
Born in 1938, Per Kirkeby grew up on a progressive council housing estate in a suburb of Copenhagen. Dominating the skyline was Grundtvig’s Church, a vast brick edifice built by the Modernist architect Jensen Klint in commemoration of the ‘Danish Ruskin’, N.F.S. Grundtvig.
Years later the artist acknowledged this building as an influence, saying, ‘I believe that I have had some structures implanted that lie in my pictures. Both the paintings and the sculptures.’
At 18, Kirkeby went to Copenhagen University to study geology, and took part in expeditions to Peary Island in northern Greenland. These trips, during which he observed the way land forms — the layers upon layers of matter laid down and removed over millions of years — left a profound impression on the artist, and later shaped his two guiding principles in art: sedimentation and erosion.
At the Ex-School Kirkeby participated in spontaneous Fluxus actions, established the film company ABCinema and published poetry. Together with fellow students Bjørn Nørgaard and Poul Gernes, he was part of an international community of conceptual artists, among them Nam June Paik, George Maciunas and Yoko Ono, who were challenging ideas of what art could be.
Yet at heart Kirkeby was a painter, finding in the layers of oil paint and the dynamic tensions of space, form and matter, an art that echoed his curious engagement with the natural world.
Hoogewerf explains that Kirkeby’s early painting career can be roughly broken into four parts: the Masonite works; the blackboard paintings; the ‘overpaintings’; and finally his Neo-Expressionist landscapes, which dominated his output in later years.
The Masonite paintings
Kirkeby’s early Masonite paintings are wild, raw and Pop art-inspired, featuring bold colours and cut-outs repeated in rhythmic patterns, like an Andy Warhol silk screen. There are references to comic art and advertising, as can be seen in the brilliantly coloured 1967 work Dameportræt (Portrait of a lady), below.
By the 1970s, Kirkeby was incorporating dried leaves, flowers and twigs into these works. ‘This is where you start to see his interest in erosion and evolution emerge,’ says Hoogewerf. ‘Take Linnaeus Collapsed from 1972, which was recently acquired by the Louisiana Museum from the collection of Birte Inge Christensen and John Hunov (1936-2017), a long-time supporter who first met Kirkeby in the late 1960s.
It was originally titled To Linnaeus, but as the leaves fell off he changed its name to reflect the painting’s deterioration.’
In 1964 Kirkeby met Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) when the German Actionist came to Copenhagen on one of his performance lecture tours. Beuys used blackboards to illustrate his utopian visions, which looked like flow charts covered in strange, incomprehensible markings.
‘I think it is fair to say that Beuys had an influence,’ says the specialist, noting that Kirkeby’s blackboards are similarly enigmatic. ‘The difference is that Beuys’s drawings are made with chalk and can be rubbed out, whereas Kirkeby created his out of layers and layers of paint. They appear immutable and evoke the geological build-up of sediment over time.’
‘The “overpaintings” are Kirkeby’s least well-known works,’ says Hoogewerf. The artist bought cheap pictures from charity shops and jumble or garage sales which he then painted over, later saying that this was a way of exploring sentimentality.
‘It is very easy to purify these paintings and make them very arty and tasteful, but this is not risky enough nor is it anything to do with real life. Life is damn kitschy,’ Kirkeby explained.
The Neo-Expressionist landscape paintings
Kirkeby achieved international recognition in 1976, when he represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale. By now he was in full-scale experimental mode — collapsing structures, dripping paint, wiping and scraping at the canvas before re-covering the surface in wide, stabbing strokes.
A painting such as Magdalene in the Cave, flaring with colour and passionate gestures, gives only a vague sense of foreground and background — a figure on all fours just discernible in the centre of the picture.
It was around this time that the artist first exhibited the brick sculptures that he had been making since the mid-1960s. In many ways, these solemn monoliths stand in total contrast to his paintings. They are mute, heavy and forceful, like buildings intended to house the dead. Some could be mistaken for chimneys or furnaces — structures that aid the passage from living matter to dust and cinders. There are echoes of Grundtvig’s Church and its stark Lutheran aesthetic.
When John Hunov came to commission a mausoleum for himself and his wife, Birte Inge Christensen, he asked Kirkeby to design one of these austere structures. It stands in the Frederiksberg cemetery in Copenhagen.
The artist also made small-scale sculptures in plaster which he cast in bronze, freezing the restless power of his creativity into strange, quasi-Neolithic totems. ‘Like his later landscapes, they resonate with the power of erosion,’ says Hoogewerf.
When asked about the differences between his paintings and his sculptures, Kirkeby replied, ‘I see them as all mixed up together. Structure, space, tactile qualities, the way light is handled by the surface — both media are about these kinds of things.’
‘I think ultimately Kirkeby was concerned with the passage of time,’ says Hoogewerf, ‘and how that could be translated into painting and sculpture. He often spoke in interviews about how his outlook changed as he grew older.’
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‘All of us are forced to think about life and death,’ Kirkeby once said, ‘and my paintings are about that. It’s not that I point my finger and say, “Look at that cross there — that is probably about death.” But, in a complicated way, it is.’